When Machines Have Intentions, Men Become Machines, Research Time, 21/08/2013

The more Jean-Paul Sartre I read, the more I appreciate his prescience. As I read more of his exploration of scarcity and its material articulations, I find ideas that would become momentous in major philosophies in subsequent decades casually thrown around as Sartre makes his points and moves on. This time, it’s a curious idea about the actions of inanimate objects and systems of bodies.

He discusses what he considers a curious way of speaking that he says only became prevalent after Karl Marx, but which has become ubiquitous and ordinary by now. In his first illustrative example of this, Sartre describes how the workday in industrializing Europe expanded beyond daylight to reach fifteen to sixteen hours. This is because gas-powered lighting was invented, and these lights enabled workers to stay in the factories past sundown. 

Sartre’s critique is in the active word given to a lamp. Lamps don’t enable anything because they don’t think or move. At the moment, Sartre critiques this way of thinking for attributing intentionality and the ability to act to a set of inanimate bodies. The lamps had no malice toward the workers who were cajoled into brutally longer workdays after their advent. They weren’t capable of thought and planning, therefore incapable of action as traditionally conceived.

I’ve read this idea in analytic moral philosophy as well, in regard to problems that come up in environmentalist philosophy. In describing ecosystems, it’s often required to discuss how a river or some other feature of a landscape affects surrounding bodies. And sometimes, a philosopher who will appear saying that inanimate objects can’t act. They’re entirely passive because they define action using a common sense definition: if a body can’t think or plan what it does, then it can’t be said to truly act. This is the reasoning behind the classifications of killing in our judicial system. The degree of severity of the punishment you face for killing someone varies according to your planning and foresight. 

Of course, just because one conception of action works in one venue (such as judicial morality) doesn’t mean that same conception will work in another venue (such as understanding ecological relationships). And ecological relationships don’t only occur in natural systems like river valleys and deserts, but in factories, towns, and farms. Economic systems are ecosystems too.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest conceptual transformation that the twenty-first century and ecological philosophy has brought us: the ability to understand nonhumans and even the nonliving as actors in the world. That way, we can better conceive of how the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into through the unintentional activity of humanity and other bodies operate. People who still think according to this radical separation of humanity and nonhumans are hobbled in their ability to understand the material relationships and dynamics that actually constitute our world.

People are also machines, and machines can be understood as different kinds of people. What Sartre discussed, Gilles Deleuze and I embraced. 

And Kraftwerk seem to have lived it.


  1. This is quite a tease, Adam -- you say that we developed a way of talking about the agency of inanimate objects following Marx, that this was over-corrected by those rejecting any possibility of an inanimate object having agency, but then don't spell out your own position. Another day, perhaps?

    For my own part, I suppose I tend to be among your excoriated and hobbled human-as-distinct-from-nonhuman people, although I do end up thinking ecologically (now that I reflect on it) in terms of the ecology of human cultures. The theory of action underpinning cultural sociology is based on the agency of meanings: meanings are tools but also the only resources we have in thoughtful action, so some meanings can overwhelm the actor and trigger behavior. E.g. transgression of a sacred notion (burning a flag) triggers outraged behavior in onlookers, whether they will it or not. A loose way of talking would be to assign agency to the flag -- the flag IS the sacred and DEMANDS our protection, or something like that (not the best example, really). But what we mean is that there's an ecology of meanings that are suddenly motivating the actor to one specific action, outrage (however expressed).

    1. I actually did give my own position: all moving bodies are actors. I just call them actors. That's what happens when you drop the "thinking and planning" requirement from your definition of actor. The thinking-planning type is a kind of actor, but there are many other kinds of actors that do other things than thinking and planning.

      It isn't that there are no differences between humans and all the other kinds of creatures and bodies that exist. I'd never get away with saying that because it's ridiculous. But the differences don't constitute some fundamental ontological segregation of the human actors from the passive everything else. There are approaches in analytic moral philosophy that use that thinking-planning definition of actor, and I've read articles that dismiss almost all of environmental ethics because they say a moral relationship with a creature that doesn't think and plan is an absurd, contradictory concept. And it is, but only according to their humanist moral definitions.

      Accomplishing a moral philosophy that concentrates on human dignity was a very important goal in the 20th century, where humanity committed its biggest offenses against human dignity. But the most important offenses, when it comes to our continued existence, are now the ecological. And humanist moralities are inadequate to those problems.

      Pick your tools for the job.

  2. This clarification is very helpful and much appreciated -- but to push you further, what is an act? What is an actor? Something that causes something else? Something that changes states? Or is your position more of a field-type definition, i.e. that there aren't necessarily any basic elements common across all classes of actors, but we can simply categorize them all as "actor" as a convenience? Don't feel you need to answer all the questions of the universe here, but if you already have these issues resolved in your mind I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Well, as far as my ecological theory work is concerned, an actor is anything that contributes to the dynamism of a system: its existence has effects.

      I think philosophy is a kind of conceptual engineering. We create concepts for the problems that arise in our time, sometimes in dialogue with a particular tradition of writings and thought, sometimes it's another tradition, sometimes not at all. Philosophy always did this, even when it was a mystical meditation on the existence of the world, or on the ideals of thought, or when it was a catchall for general scientific investigation. Now that all that stuff happens in other fields, I think philosophy is left as pure conceptual engineering. Which I think is great!

      But a lot of folks in philosophy still think we're on some progressive movement as a discipline toward discovering the truth of . . . something. Their sentences usually end with 'the truth' in general. Whatever that is. No one's ever given me a good answer.

      So the humanist moral philosopher can have her concept of actor for her problems, and I can have my for my problems. We don't invalidate each other; we just operate in different domains.